In chauffeuring teens, a mom racks up miles and insights

Living in a rural area - five miles away from town and school, 12 miles from a movie theater, 30 miles from a reasonably good shopping area, and 90 miles from a mall - means spending a lot of time in the car. Frequently, I find myself cast in the role of chauffeur for my 13-year-old daughter and her friends, and that's OK with me. Driving a group of 13-year-old girls around presents a rare opportunity to find out what is going on in their lives.

Like any good chauffeur, I keep my eyes on the road, my hands on the wheel, my mouth closed, and my ears open. Though I am not sitting behind the type of glass divider that prevents a real chauffeur from listening to the private conversations of his passengers, in my car I am somehow cloaked with invisibility.

The girls know that I'm there and that I hear what they're saying, but that does not keep them from carrying on a mostly nonstop conversation. Now I am not foolish enough to think that I am learning any deep, dark secrets, but I am learning what goes on in school and with sports, who's going out with whom, and what the plans are for the next get-together in far greater detail than if I asked about any of these things.

My daughter has always been one to keep her own counsel, and there's no forcing her to reveal even the most mundane details of her life, no matter how much I might want to hear them.

Recently she attended a day-long health fair with her teachers and classmates, and I was curious to hear all about it. "How was the health fair?" I asked when she got home from school. "OK," she replied. "Were the speakers any good?" I persisted. "Boring." Me again: "Well, what were their names and what did they talk about?" To which my daughter replied, "I don't remember" (about their names) and "junk" (their subject matter).

I gave up my futile effort to learn about the health fair after getting just a little more information. Later that same day, I drove my daughter and two of her friends to the local Wal-Mart to buy a birthday present for another friend. On the way they talked about - you guessed it - the health fair, and my curiosity was finally satisfied.

Curiosity as defined by "The New Webster's Dictionary of the English Language" (Deluxe Encyclopedic Edition), is "a desire to see what is new or unusual, or to gratify the mind with new discoveries," and that's what I want to do with my daughter and her friends.

Though I've known most of these girls since preschool days, I discover something new each time I see them. Some kind of adolescent magic show is changing them from the little girls I've known into the women they will someday become, and I don't want to miss the opportunity to see that happen.

Gone are the days when I went along on school field trips or watched a show put on in my living room by a group of girls who came over to play. Opportunities to be with my daughter and her friends, to listen in on their lives and to learn what kind of people they are becoming, are more limited these days. So you can be sure the next time my daughter asks me to drive, I'll say yes.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to home@csps.com.

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